Michael Steele was supposed to drive the Republican Party out of the wilderness. Instead, he is driving the party to distraction.
The latest flap involves the release of the Republican National Committee chairman’s book, “Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda.” Steele failed to inform Republican congressional leaders that the book was coming out, and many of them learned about it only through Steele’s television appearances.
But many see criticism over the book as a pretext for what really is disturbing a range of Republican leaders: Steele’s public comments, which can be described only as bizarre.
Case in point: Steele told Sean Hannity of Fox News that the GOP cannot win back a majority in the House in 2010. Besides the fact that everything points to big Republican wins in the next election, the job of head of a political party is to be a cheerleader, not a detractor.
This came during a week that otherwise was rosy for Republicans. Two veteran Senate Democrats announced their retirements. New polls showed major GOP projected gains in congressional elections in November. Polls also showed President Obama’s popularity at a low point.
But Steele chose this moment of triumph to diss his own party.
After that comment, key Republican congressional leaders such as Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the minority whip, called Steele to bawl him out.
In response to such criticism and fears that he is undercutting Republican recruitment efforts, Steele lashed out in a radio interview with ABC News.
“Get a life,” Steele snapped. “If you don’t want me in the job, fire me. But until then, shut up. Get with the program.”
“It was all of his own making,” says a key GOP insider. “There was no controversy until he went on a TV show and opened his yapper and made a controversy. Then he gets knocked into line, smacked into line, and he tries to fix what he’s broken.”
The episode followed others in which Steele seemed to go out of his way to thumb his nose at fellow Republicans. In remarks that CNN aired on March 1, Steele said that he, rather than Rush Limbaugh, is “the de facto leader of the Republican Party. Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh’s whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it is incendiary. Yes, it is ugly.”
Responding to a comment by TV One’s Roland Martin that “white Republicans have been scared of black folks,” Steele replied, “You’re absolutely right.”
The first African-American RNC chairman, Steele continued, “I’ve been in the room, and they’ve been scared of me. I’m like, I’m on your side.”
Republican leaders also winced when Steele accused Democrats of “flipping the bird” to the American public on healthcare reform in December. Although that remark was off color, other Steele comments are combative, self-centered, and derogatory about his own party.
Small wonder that Brad Woodhouse, the Democratic National Committee's communications director, has said that Steele is “the gift that keeps on giving” for Democrats.
Steele is a smart man, so the problem is not that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Rather, he seems confused about his role. Does he think he’s a talking head or a politician running for office against someone in his own party? Does he think he can woo independents by knocking Republicans? Whatever the answer, Steele does not get that the leader of a political party should be a unifier who stays on message.
Few Republican leaders want to be quoted as criticizing the charismatic party leader, who probably will continue to hold his post at least for now. But with a few exceptions, support for him among Republicans and conservatives has virtually vanished.
One exception is Newt Gingrich, who has said Steele “makes a number of old-time Republicans very nervous. He comes out of a different background. . . But I think he’s pretty close to what we need. He’s different, he’s gutsy, and he’s going to make a number of Republicans mad.”
In the face of criticism, Steele routinely tries to retract his controversial statements. He now says Republicans will win in 2010, but the damage has been done. He has defended his leadership by saying, “I have $8 million [cash on hand in the RNC's coffers] and no debt and, oh, by the way, I won two governorships and a host of special elections throughout [last] year and — gee, guess what — we’re building the brand. We’re engaging our grass-roots activists.”
Given that the RNC had $23 million when Steele took over in January 2009, $8 million now on the books is not exactly impressive. Meanwhile, some key Republican donors say they are avoiding the RNC.
Steele did not respond to Newsmax requests for comment on the points in this article.
A conservative strategist says, “We are auditioning now to be given back some power that was taken from us. The American people fired Republicans from the majority in 2006 in both bodies, and the White House in 2008, for not being responsible with their money and with their affairs in Washington. We’re auditioning to get our old job back and be given more responsibility. And Steele is not conducting himself in a way that makes even us comfortable that he’s responsible.”
On Fox, when Hannity expressed surprise at Steele's comment that Republicans wouldn't be able to take back the House, Steele allowed that “I don’t know yet” whether Republicans could win a majority because candidates still are being lined up.
“But then,” Steele said, “the question we need to ask ourselves is, if we do that, are we ready?”
Hannity asked Steele what his answer is.
“I don’t know,” Steele said.
If Steele isn’t sure Republicans are ready to govern, one thing is for sure: Steele is not ready to lead the Republican Party.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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